Mad scientists often have the dangerous habit of combining things that don't naturally belong together, in an attempt to create new forms of life. So it is with Viktor, the disturbed doctor who fuses corpses and machines to create creatures that cause you no small amount of trouble in Rise of Nightmares. Rise of Nightmares itself is an uneasy combination of elements, awkwardly fusing grisly zombie-slashing gameplay with the Kinect's motion controls. The result is not unlike one of Viktor's shambling creations; it works, more or less, but it feels unnatural.
You play as Josh, a young husband traveling with his wife, Kate, through Eastern Europe. Josh's drinking problem has long been a wedge between the couple, and Kate's frustration with Josh's behavior is boiling over. But the two soon have much bigger problems to deal with, when the train they're traveling on is derailed and Kate is abducted by the local mad scientist. As Josh, you must fight your way through legions of Viktor's combinations of flesh and metal in an attempt to save Kate and escape with your own life. The story is standard stuff, but Viktor's remorseless eagerness to butcher anyone who crosses his path makes him a villain you want to put a stop to. Rise of Nightmares is rarely scary, but the visuals create a convincingly creepy atmosphere; the dungeons you must travel through look so dank you can almost feel the foul moisture in the air, and the torture devices, human remains and bloodstains that decorate the halls create an unsettling sense of the horrors that have occurred there.
You use your body to navigate the corridors and courtyards of Viktor's estate. Turning your torso left and right makes Josh do the same, and walking is a simple matter of putting one foot forward. You feel more like you're steering a cumbersome vehicle than moving naturally through these places, but the controls are adequate in most environments, where precise movements aren't required. However, a few rooms and hallways of Viktor's mansion are outfitted with deadly spikes that shoot out of the floors, blades that periodically drop down from the ceiling, and other deadly traps. In moments like this, Rise of Nightmares' full body control is too limiting and too clumsy, making avoiding these hazards much harder than it should be. By putting your foot farther forward, you can make Josh move forward faster, but even in situations when running would be wise, you can't make him move faster than a brisk walk. And although you might want to look up to make sure you're not standing right underneath that guillotine-like blade above you, Josh's gaze is always fixed forward. If you don't feel like steering Josh around yourself, you can usually make him automatically head toward his current destination by holding your right hand up, but when environmental dangers are present, it's up to you to avoid them.
It's also up to you to kill the countless creatures that stand between you and Kate, and here the controls fare better. By holding your arms up like a boxer, you automatically focus on the nearest enemy and guard against incoming attacks. You can use your bare fists to clobber these atrocities, but your creature-killing efforts are much more effective if you use the weapons scattered throughout the estate. These include mundane items like brass knuckles, hammers, and hatchets, as well as outlandish devices like shock knuckles, bone shears, and the mechanized arms of your fallen foes. Weapons degrade as you use them and eventually break, but there's always a new weapon nearby to pick up when one goes out on you.
To attack, you make a gesture that suits your current weapon, and although your attempts to target the weaker, fleshy parts of the creatures don't always work as well as they should, it doesn't matter much; a few solid strikes is enough to dispose of most enemies. A few enemy types force you to consider your surroundings and attack carefully, like the shriekers, whose sonic attacks require you to cover your ears, leaving you vulnerable to assaults from other enemies. But for the most part, combat is easy; you just guard when enemies attack and then you strike them down. It's fun to play with all the different weapons, and late in the game, you acquire a particularly satisfying combat ability, but there's just not enough depth or variety to the combat to keep it interesting throughout this adventure.
On occasion, you need to do battle with some of Viktor's more powerful and deadly creations. Fighting these bosses is a lot like fighting normal creatures, except that you must avoid their attacks by responding quickly to onscreen prompts. You might be prompted to sidestep an enemy's thrust or duck under an enemy's whirling slash. The more physical nature of these battles makes them stand out from the ho-hum combat of the rest of the game, but they don't offer much challenge, and they illuminate just how limited the controls are; you might wish you could backstep or crouch under the occasional attack from a standard creature, but apparently Josh is capable of making these moves only when a big prompt tells him to. Making the controls feel more unnatural still is that you can't just walk up to a door, a switch, or anything else and interact with it naturally; you must first hover your hand for a moment over a prompt that reads "Interact" before making your door-opening or switch-flicking gesture.
Once in a while, Rise of Nightmares uses its Kinect controls to create tense moments. For instance, the hulking beast known as Ernst is sensitive to noise and movement, so when he passes by, you must stand very still to avoid alerting him. But aside from these occasional nail-biting situations, this is an ordinary journey whose motion controls too often just get in the way, rather than making the experience feel more real. Rise of Nightmares is far from an abomination, but its attempts to imitate life aren't going to fool anyone.